This is a guest post by Judy Jenner. Judy is a federally certified Spanish court interpreter and a long-time German and Spanish translator specialized in legal, business, marketing, and e-commerce. She runs her boutique translation and interpreting business, Twin Translations, with her twin sister Dagy. They are the authors of the business book “The Entrepreneurial Linguist: The Business-School Approach to Freelance Translation,” which has sold more than 5,000 copies. Find Judy on Twitter (@language_news) and on the Translation Times blog.
How I passed the Federal Court Interpreter Certification Examination (FCICE)
Without a doubt, the federal court interpreter certification examination (known by its acronym, FCICE) is the one of the most feared interpreting exams in the country – and while it is the one with the lowest pass rate, it doesn’t have to be scary. I am happy to report on my experience and tell you how I passed the oral portion the second time around.
First off: this is a very difficult exam, but it’s not impossible to pass it. The oral portion is offered every two years in some 15 cities across the country. You don’t have to be perfect to pass it, but you have to be very, very good. The minimum passing score is 80%, which is higher than the bar exam and most other national exams. Here are some tips, insight, and strategies that worked for me, but that, as a matter of course, might not work for everyone:
1) Take a practice exam before you decide how to focus your practice time. The exam consists of several portions: consecutive, simultaneous into Spanish (two portions; one monologue with one speaker and one with two speakers), sight translation English into Spanish, and sight translation Spanish into English. You might think that consecutive is your weakness, but when is the last time you had some hard data on this? That’s why I suggest taking at least one practice exam, and it’s also good to put yourself in a simulated testing environment to see how you handle your nerves. The University of Arizona and the National Center for State Courts have these available for sale. It’s important to have a baseline of your skills at the beginning of the study process, and you must take a hard look at your skills and evaluate them critically: is your civil law terminology weak? Should you focus on sight translation and improve your reading speed because you run out of time during that portion? Then spend your time on your weaker areas.
2) Learn as much about the exam as possible. Make sure you read all the information the FCICE provides (especially the handbook), and calm down your nerves by knowing exactly which portion of the exam is first and how the test will work. Knowledge is power, especially when it comes down to the relatively formal logistics of the exam.
3) It’s not (really) a terminology exam. I missed passing the exam the first time by a few points, and I believe it was partially related to the fact that I went down the rabbit hole of memorizing too much highly specialized terminology related to fingerprinting, forensics, DNA analysis, etc. instead of spending the time practicing actual interpreting. There is only so much time you will have to practice, and you need to use that time wisely. I found that as a state-certified court interpreter in two states who works regularly, I already knew enough judicial terminology to pass the exam, and that my time might be best spent gaining speed. That being said, if you think you need more judicial terminology, you probably do. Increasing your vocabulary involves memorization and repetition, which isn’t usually a lot of fun, but it may be necessary.
4) Interpret a wide variety of topics. While this is certainly a court interpreting exam, it’s all about speed and precision; you should train your brain to deal with unexpected terms and turns of phrase – and you do that best by exposing yourself to different topics. I am a huge fan of Speechpool and the European Union Speech Repository. TED Talks are fantastic as well, but keep in mind that these have not been recorded with interpreters in mind, so they might be faster than others – but they are great practice. I’ve interpreted speeches about artificial intelligence, hippos in Colombia, airplane food, the price of cosmetics, hedge funds, cross-country skiing, and many, many others.
5) Interpret regularly. The only way to become a better interpreter is to interpret, and to do it regularly; ideally every day. Make it a priority to make this a part of your day—like brushing your teeth. I created a spreadsheet on which I recorded every video I interpreted and jotted down terminology that was either new to me or I couldn’t interpret correctly. I suggest having a similar spreadsheet (or a journal – whatever works for you), and keep yourself honest by logging frequent entries. However, don’t set unrealistic goals. If all you can do is interpret 10 minutes every second day, then do that, but be consistent.
6) Record your renditions and ask colleagues to evaluate them. One of the best things you can do to critically evaluate your skills is to record your renditions and to listen to them right after you’ve interpreted them. I use a recording tool called Audacity. Get together with colleagues, perhaps some who are also studying for the exam, and ask them for constructive feedback. Do the same for them.
7) Take an in-person class if you can. I took short classes at two highly regarded universities – the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey (formerly Monterey Institute of International Studies), where I had the opportunity to learn from two court interpreting legends, Holly Mikkelson and Esther Navarro-Hall, and another class at the University of Arizona. My tip: stick to highly regarded universities and to well-known instructors who put on their own workshops, such as Tony Rosado. I can also recommend Jumpstart for 2017, MATI’s (Midwest Association of Translators and Interpreters) online classes taught by my colleague Ernesto Niño-Murcia.
8) On exam day, don’t leave anything to chance. Get to the exam location well ahead of time, and if you have never been there, you might want to visit it the day before. The exam isn’t offered in my hometown, so I had to fly to Tucson. The exams are usually held at hotels, so I thought it best to stay at the same hotel to minimize any logistical challenges. Have a snack or a light meal before the exam, warm up your voice, and interpret a video or audio file that you know well to build your confidence. This might be silly, but some of the best pre-exam advice I got is to get pumped up by singing some of your favorite songs. I sang (poorly) and danced (decently) to Timbiriche and Luis Miguel in Spanish and Morrissey in English.
9) Work on your speed. To me, the exam is mainly one of speed, and many interpreters are the most concerned about the second simultaneous portion, the one featuring two English speakers –and so was I. Focus on building speed by interpreting audio and video files that are increasingly faster. Challenge yourself and your speed will improve.
10) It’s just an exam. Don’t make this exam into more than what it is – not passing it doesn’t mean you are not a good or great interpreter, but it might mean you need to polish your skills if you want to work in the federal courts.
Best of luck, and more importantly: enjoy the process of honing your interpreting skills!